Conspiracy Theories

The indie self-publishing world needs to take some deep breaths. The blows have been coming fast and hard lately. Kindle Worlds is gone, people lost half their KU page reads for April, RT convention is gone, there was that whole trademark thing…

Everyone wants to understand. They want an explanation. They want it to make sense. And it doesn’t. At least not given what we know.

So then the conspiracy theories start…

Like the one that says that running AMS is why people lost page reads.

Or the one that says that somehow Amazon used Pronoun as some sort of data gathering effort and then turned on Pronoun and merged with Draft2Digital? (By the way, person who said that, that word does not mean what you think it does. A merger is a very different thing from a distribution agreement. VERY. Also, Amazon doesn’t need Pronoun’s data. I think you got that backwards.)

So let’s all take a deep, deep breath. In…..Out…..

Here’s the deal:

Self-publishing is chaotic. It’s one of the only areas in my life where I’ve ever felt the need for the serenity prayer. You know the one that basically says grant me the strength to do what I can and ignore the rest?

If you’re going to stick with self-publishing long-term, you need that. Put it on your wall. And every time one of these situations arises ask yourself: “Is this something I can do anything about?” and “Is this something I should do something about?”

If it’s yes, then act. If it’s no, then move on. Usually the answer to one or both of those questions will be no.

Also, if someone makes some sort of insane claim about what’s going on, step back. Think Occam’s Razor. The simplest solution is usually the correct one.

It’s not some vast conspiracy. There is not some masterplan bent on your personal destruction. Usually what’s happening is the outcome of a lot of people or companies making decisions that are best for them without thinking about the impact on anyone else. It’s that simple.

Yes, there are cutthroat assholes out there. At the individual level and the corporate level. For them it’s rarely personal. They make decisions based on what will earn them the most money. So once you know that about them, act accordingly. Don’t feel betrayed that they acted within their nature. They are what they are.

One more point.

I was about to respond to the umpteenth post I’d seen recently about how everyone who had page reads stripped last month seems to have been running AMS. (Not necessarily true. Just like it wasn’t true that they were all running Bookbubs last year when page reads precipitously dropped for some people.)

I was going to make a comment about how it’s easy to look at a small number of people who had X happen to them, see that they all had Y in common, and conclude that Y was the cause, while failing to see that there are a hundred times as many people who also had Y but where nothing happened to them.

But then I asked myself whether I should be spending my time on the internet trying to convince strangers to calm down and stop seeing conspiracies around every corner.

No, I should not. I should be writing. I have a book I need to finish editing. So I can publish it. And advertise it. With AMS.

A Quick & Dirty Guide to AMS for Authors

Once again the main AMS thread over on Kboards has grown to the size where it’s probably intimidating to newbies. And one of the wiser members over there suggested that maybe I should just put together a quick FAQ on AMS to direct people to.

Now, remember, I wrote a whole book about AMS ads (AMS Ads for Authors by M.L. Humphrey) the last time I decided to do something like this, so brevity on this subject is not my strong suit.

But here goes.

What Are AMS?

AMS is shorthand for Amazon Marketing Services. AMS ads are a type of pay-per-click advertisement that authors can use that allow them to advertise their books in Amazon search results, on Amazon product pages, and on Kindles.

There are multiple types of AMS accounts that have different dashboards and advertising options, but most authors just open the type of AMS account they can access using their KDP account.

If you do this, there will be two types of advertising available to you: Product Display and Sponsored Product ads.

What is the Difference Between Product Display and Sponsored Product Ads?

There are a number of differences between the two ad types. They display in different locations, contain different information, and behave differently. Also, how you target the ads differs.

For the purpose of this quick and dirty overview, be sure when you’re talking to someone else about AMS that you understand what type of ad they use. Otherwise you may get “bad” advice.

How Long Does It Take For An Ad to Be Approved?

It should be approved in less than a day.

My Ad Was Rejected. Why?

Usually it’s a cover that Amazon thinks is too sexy or violent or you tried to use ad copy Amazon doesn’t like.

There’s a guide to their ad policies that it’s worth reviewing if you run into this or if you write books with sexy people or guns on the cover. And don’t use ALL CAPS in your ad. Or ellipsis. Or a double dash.

When Should I Expect My AMS Ad to Start Running?

For SP ads, immediately. You should see impressions and clicks the day the ad is approved. For PD ads…Maybe never.

I’m Seeing Sales or Page Reads, But the Dashboard Shows No Sales

That’s because there is usually a two to three day delay in the reporting of sales on the AMS dashboard. So you’ll see clicks and impressions but the sales that were generated from that won’t show for a couple days. This is why you shouldn’t use the dashboard to monitor your ads.

Also, the AMS dashboard shows nothing related to KU borrows.

If I Don’t Use the Dashboard, How Do I Monitor My Ads?

For new ads I only use the AMS dashboard to see what I’ve spent. That I believe is pretty accurate. I then compare that to the KDP dashboard and CreateSpace dashboard to determine if I’m seeing increased sales on that book. For a book in KU I will also watch the book’s rank to see if there are increased borrows.

If I’m seeing a lot of spend but not a lot of increased sales/borrows, I will shut that ad down. New ads can sometimes generate a lot of clicks but lead to no sales/borrows.

For my long-running ads…

On a daily basis, I only pay attention to those ads where I’ve maxed out my budget. So if I have a $5 budget and Amazon tells me I’ve spent it, I go look at the Amazon dashboard and CreateSpace to see if I’ve earned more than $5 on sales of that book that day. If so, I up my bid. If not, that ad is done for the day. (If you’re in KU, you should also look at your book’s rank to see if it reflects enough borrows to justify keeping the ad going.)

In addition, I look at profitability across all of my ads every time Amazon bills me. I spend enough on AMS that they bill me every ten days or so. At that point I go and compare what I spent for the period to what I earned on ebook sales, print sales, and page reads for the period. (There are some minor flaws in that approach, but it’s good enough for me.) If I’m profitable, I keep the ad running. If I’m not, I either adjust bids or shutdown the ad.

(You will be billed at least once a month for your AMS ads no matter what you spend, so you can do this at least once per month.)

You Mentioned Print Sales. How Does That Work?

AMS is very good for driving print sales in addition to ebook sales. You have to have an ebook version available to run this type of AMS ad, but they seem to do very well with print sales as well. As a matter of fact, I have a couple non-fiction titles where I get about 60% print sales to 40% ebook with AMS.

Keywords. How Many? Where Do I Find Them? What Makes One Good?

Different approaches work well with AMS. I am of the limited number of keywords, high bid, sponsored product ad school of thought. Others do well with as many keywords as they can find and low bids. So it’s really up to you.

And there are many, many places to find them. (I cover ten in my book.) Think like a reader. When you go to Amazon and look for a book, how do you search for it? I’ve found that with fiction I do best with generic genre terms and author names. With non-fiction I do best with topic-related search terms and book titles.

There is some debate about what makes a keyword a good one. For me, it’s about sales. So lots of impressions with low clicks? Bad. Lots of clicks with low sales? Bad. I want impressions that lead to clicks that lead to sales. I don’t care about visibility if it isn’t also resulting in paying customers.

(And be careful if you’re in KU because AMS ads can lead to borrows that won’t show on the dashboard, so you can see clicks but low sales on a good keyword.)

Bidding. What Should I Bid?

That’s up to you. Some choose a low-bid strategy. Some choose a high-bid strategy. I tend to be on the high bid side of things but I’ve seen people do well with the low bid side. When I say low bid I’m probably talking under 15 cents. When I say high bid I’m probably talking over 45 cents. (But those are moving targets. AMS is a bid system where you are bidding against others for that ad slot. Some genres, like romance, are more competitive than others.)

I Bid Really High. Why Didn’t It Work?

Because AMS is not a pure bid-based system. There is a relevance factor involved in how AMS evaluates your bid against others’. None of us know exactly how it works, but it’s in your best interests to have as successful an ad as you can manage if you want to win your auctions. That means you want people buying your book if you want to continue winning your auctions.

Start a New Ad or Revive An Old One?

Once more, there are different opinions on this. New ads tend to run hot so will rack up more impressions faster. If they’re working that’s great, but they can be a quick way to lose a lot of money. I prefer to keep an older successful ad running because I think that’s part of what Amazon looks at when it judges two bids against one another. But you can’t do that without maintaining that ad. (At least on the SP side of things.)

To maintain an ad, I kill off non-performing keywords, change bids, change budgets, and sometimes will pause an ad for a bit and then start it up again.

AMS Are a Nightmare. It’s All So Confusing. Why Use Them? Aren’t They Just Scamming Us Out of More Money?

I love AMS because they give me direct access to the largest ebook and print book market in the world. And they give me the opportunity to advertise my books at full price on a daily basis.

They also work for me. I make a profit running them. I have one ad right now where I spend about $125 every ten days and I make about $400 in sales.

Are all of my ads that successful? No.

Is it frustrating sometimes to have an ad stop running and not know why? Yes.

Can one competitor entering the market and outbidding me change all that tomorrow? You betcha.

But before AMS existed, that book I just mentioned? It would’ve never sold as many copies as it has.

Since I started running AMS I have seen significant improvement in sales of all of my books. That doesn’t mean I’ve sold millions of copies. I don’t write to market. And some of what I write probably only has a potential audience of a hundred people. But AMS have been a lifesaver for me.

They are what they are. Yes, sales cost more if you run them than if you had organic sales. But…Most of us are not at the stage where we get organic sales. So the choice is: pay to advertise your books or don’t sell at all. I know which I prefer.

If you want to learn more about AMS there is a thread on Kboards with lots of information and opinions: A New AMS Thread

And, of course, I did write a book on this: AMS Ads for Authors that’s only $4.99 in ebook or $10 in paperback.

It’s also now a video course, available here  and for a special introductory price until June 30th.

The Dirty Little Secret of Self-Publishing

I’m sure there’s actually more than one, but the one I’m thinking about today is this:

How many copies you sell is meaningless.

It’s what so many people talk about and you see it used in advertising all the time, but at the end of the day no author is going to be able to do this full-time, even if they’re selling millions of copies, unless they’re actually making a profit on those sales.

Self-publishing is horribly myopic in this respect. Rarely do I see someone report “I made $X profit.” Instead it’s “I sold X copies” or “I’ve sold $X worth of books.”

And I get it. The gross numbers certainly look a lot better for everyone than the net number. It’s far more exciting to say “I sold a million copies” than “I sold a million copies but it cost me so much that I’m now in the hole $10,000…”

And in this business you gotta celebrate every little victory no matter what. (And perception matters, too. People want to read what other people read. They want to associate themselves with success.)

Anyway.

What prompted this thought is that I realized yesterday that my first-in-series fantasy novel sold it’s 2500th copy sometime in April. Which is a big milestone for me. I had no idea I’d sold that many copies of that title until I stopped and looked at my reports.

Woohoo! Right?

But.

Here’s the interesting thing about that title and that series: it’s my least profitable series. I actually consider it a failure.

It’s only one of three “series” (out of 26) I have that are in the red. And the only one that’s more than $50 in the red. (It’s the cost of those damned covers that I love so much…)

Interestingly, my most profitable series has sold only half as many copies but grossed more because it’s never been on sale and been significantly more profitable because it’s easier to advertise.

It’ll never get a Bookbub. (I can’t even apply for one because it’s under their page count threshold.) I don’t get fan mail for it . I barely get reviews on it.

And yet…

That’s where the money is. Not in the one that’s sold a lot of copies and had three Bookbubs. But in the little workhorse title that just chugs along day after day racking up sales rain or shine.

So if you want to do this full-time. If what matters to you is being able to work for yourself and from home, don’t focus on how many copies you’ve sold. Focus on profitability. Focus on making more in sales than you spend to get those sales. And on leveraging every sale the best way you can. (By writing in series, for example.)

Another Five-Figure Year And Yet…

2017 was my first five-figure year self-publishing. It was a huge milestone for me seeing as I’d only had my first $1,000 month that June. And I didn’t cross that mark until the end of October last year.

So to reach that same mark three and a half months into the new year is awesome. And even better, I’ve made more in profit this year than I did all of last year. (It’s nice to write a book people are actually looking for and want…)

I should be ecstatic. And I am. In rare moments.

But I’m not satisfied with it. It’s not enough.

There’s this part of me that fears it will never be enough. Me being me there will always be something that keeps me from just settling in and resting on my laurels, so I’ll always be striving to be better in some respect. And will occasionally throw everything out and start over (like I did when I started writing) just to have that challenge.

With the writing I tell myself I just want to get it to the point where I’m earning enough to pay all my bills, do a few little fun projects or buy a few luxury items, and put some aside enough for the down times.

(Not much to ask for is it? Except for when you actually ask what that number is and then laugh outrageously at what I think it takes to have all that.)

But I wonder if that’s true. Because if I reach that level I want to reach, I won’t be at the top. There will definitely be self-published authors who are doing orders of magnitude better than me. (I could probably reach that level with titles that never crack a ranking of 10,000 on Amazon US.)

I like being self-employed (even the consulting work) more than being an employee because I don’t have to go through all the “but why did Bob get a promotion, too” or “why does Suzie earn that when I earn this” drama. I can set my rate, work my hours, and get paid. Or I can put a book out there at my chosen list price and people will either buy it or they won’t.

But being self-published doesn’t eliminate that ability to compare yourself to others. It’s one of the most bizarrely transparent industries I’ve ever seen when it comes to income. People talk all the time about what they’ve earned. Publicly. (Myself included it seems since I’m doing so right now.) And then there are things like Data Guy’s Author Earnings reports that put it out there even more. (I love those reports, though.)

So there’s no way to live in a vacuum and just write and publish and hit your goal and not know what others are doing. I mean, I guess there is. I could just avoid all author forums, but then I’d miss out on all the industry intelligence that I’ve found so incredibly valuable.

Sigh. I don’t know. I like this industry because it’s so uncertain. And at the same time I hate this industry because it’s so uncertain.

But we have to celebrate our little victories when they occur.

So for just one little moment–I’ll give it ten seconds–I’m going to bask in this accomplishment. 10, 9, 8…

Alright. Time’s up.

Back to the grind.

It’s All About Having Enough Product

Over and over and over again, I come back to this central conclusion: that writing success is all about having enough product. When I look at the authors I know who are really killing it, almost universally they have more than a dozen titles out under one name and those titles feed into one another.

It is incredibly rare (not impossible, but rare) for an author to be making six figures with just one or two books. I know authors who’ve done it. Who published a title and just seemed to connect to the zeitgeist of the moment and took off.

But the ones who steadily earn well year in and year out tend to be ones with a significant body of work. An oeuvre, as they say. (I tried to use that word years ago on the LSAT and could not for the life of me figure out how to spell it…)

Which makes sense, right? When I was doing the videos for AMS Ads for Authors and Excel for Self-Publishers I kept bumping up against this idea. The the more works  you have out there, the more effective and cheaper your advertising per title becomes.

If you have one book to promote, you’re kind of limited in what you can do with it.

Set it to free with nowhere for readers to go and it’s going to fizzle out fast. Not to mention, unless you’re in KU and get page reads, you won’t make anything off of it.

Set it to 99 cents and now you’re making 35 cents a sale which requires some serious volume to make any money worth speaking of. (Again, assuming we’re not talking KU reads to bolster you.)

Plus, then what? So someone reads and likes book 1 and then…That’s it.

They could love you and think you walk on water and are the best author in the world and re-read that book a hundred times and get tattoos on their body inspired by your book, but if there’s nowhere else for them to go, that doesn’t do much for you in terms of paying your bills.

I guess you could do a Patreon or a tip jar, but I like to deliver value for value, you know. So if you’ve just got that one book, you’re very limited in what you can make from it.

We aren’t selling toothpaste here. If you sell toothpaste, you hook a user, you keep your product consistent and your price reasonable, and they’ll buy it for the rest of their lives and you’ll earn $x from that customer every n months from here to eternity on that one product.

But a book sale doesn’t work that way. People usually buy it once. Maybe twice. Maybe three times at most.

Which means you need more product to offer them. You have to keep feeding that hunger.  Produce more to please those who like what you’ve already done. (Or find a way to make your books toothpaste…Calendars anyone?)

ANYWAY. Just a fun thought for a windy Tuesday when I have more ideas than time to implement them in.

Type I vs Type II Errors

Amazon seems to be in the midst of taking care of some scammer activity. There are reports of a number of customer accounts being closed as well as reports on the indie side of KU page reads from March disappearing. And with every Amazon action to clean up the swampy waters comes a discussion of innocent authors who got caught up in the actions.

For example, Amazon identifies a series of accounts as using botting activity to borrow books and read them in KU. It shuts those accounts down and pulls back all of the page reads those accounts generated. Author A who had paid for their books to be botted shrugs and moves on to the next scam. Author B whose books were read by that account to create smoke and confusion, screams bloody murder because they just lost a hundred thousand page reads they were banking on. (About $450 worth of page reads.)

Every time this happens, I think Type I error versus Type II error. Now, it’s possible that I’m misremembering my misspent education, but this is what that means to me from a regulatory and compliance standpoint. (My background.)

If you build a compliance system that is too lax, it will fail to identify all of the compliance issues. You will let through a certain percentage of activity that you shouldn’t.

If you build a compliance system that is too restrictive, it will flag a large amount of activity for review that isn’t a legitimate compliance issue and you run the risk of bogging down your review teams with false positives that they have to clear and let through.

Every company has to make a decision between those two choices. Which type of error is better? Letting through bad activity you shouldn’t? Or preventing good activity from occurring?

In certain settings–hospitals, food production, car manufacturing–you want to err on the side that saves lives, right? So, sterilize that equipment more than you really need to, because it’s better to sterilize the equipment three times than to kill someone or give them HIV.

In other settings, it can be a trickier line to draw.

I have seen companies be overwhelmed by compliance alerts that were too sensitive. Is it better to be nine months behind on your compliance reviews, but catch everything? Eh, well. I don’t know…Violate OFAC and they don’t care why you did it, they’ll fine you. But how much money do you want to spend to find that one Iranian transaction among millions?

It seems to me the approach Amazon takes sometimes is a lazy man’s approach to compliance monitoring. They do nothing until people complain too much. Then they run an automated process to flag all the potentially bad activity. And then, rather than do what the entities I used to work with would do and review all the flagged activity to find the legitimate problems, they just shut everyone down. And then they wait for the people who were innocent (or who are savvy enough to act innocent), to identify themselves with alarmed emails and complaints.

Saves a helluva lot of manpower and money. But sucks if you’re one of the ones caught in one of their purges.

On the other hand, what we normally see with them is a too lax system that allows everything through. So which is better?

Too much or too little?

Do we want the bestseller lists overwhelmed with books that shouldn’t be in those categories? (Classics? Really? That’s what you call that book?) Or do we want the risk of being purged from a legitimate category or being delisted until we can fix whatever issue Amazon has?

We can’t have it both ways. There will always be one type of error or the other.

(And for those of you who think reviewing these kinds of alerts is simple, let me tell you it isn’t. You’d think screening transaction information for something like “Iran” is simple, right? Well, you’d be amazed how many false alerts you can get from something so simple. And even if it only takes a minute to clear a false alert, when you have 10,000 false alerts to every one legitimate alert, that’s a lot of manpower involved.)

Why Aren’t You Making More?

Once  a month I meet up for dinner with folks in my old critique group. I personally hate critique groups because I need to find the story I want to tell and to do it in the way I want to, but I like the people in the group. And once a month they have dinner before critique and I join them.

A lot of them are venturing into the self-publishing or small press publishing waters. And last night one of the members essentially asked me, “you have so many titles out, why aren’t you making more money?”

My first reaction was, “I know. Seriously, right?”

My second was “Oh just wait and see and you’ll start to understand.”

I never actually managed to answer the question because we got distracted, so let me answer it here.

According to my titles tracker, I have published 126 titles total. Some of those were republished under a different name. Some are now unpublished. Some are collections of shorter stuff. And two were free from the date they were published.

So if I just look at what I have published now, it’s 84 titles, 47 of which are short stories or collections of short stories.

There’s the first issue. Apart from erotica or erotic romance, shorts don’t seem to sell. At least not for me.

I have one short story series that has made me a couple thousand dollars, but most of my short stories don’t do much. The next most successful short story series has made me about $700.

That leaves me with 37 published novels or non-fiction titles.

Six are novels, the rest are non-fiction. Now, novels do sell and they’re eligible for more advertising options, which is key for getting visibility. And five of those novels are in my top ten in terms of gross revenue earned.

But they’re split across three pen names. Three novels are under romance pen names, the other three are YA fantasy. So basically it’s the equivalent of having an author with two novels out, an author with one novel out, and an author with three novels out.

Issue there is how frequently I publish a novel. My romance novels were three years apart. My fantasy novels were about a year apart. (And the next fantasy novel will be released more than a year after the last one.)

And the number of titles. I don’t write to market, so people aren’t seeking out my books on their own. Which means I need enough titles to catch in a reader’s mind and to give them chances to find me. I don’t have that with any of those names.

Which leaves us with the non-fiction titles.

Those are spread across three pen names and cover ten topics. Some can overlap. I have guides to Microsoft Excel and Microsoft Word, and if you look at the also-boughts you’ll see that people cross over there. But people reading my book about dealing with grief aren’t also reading my cookbook.

So again it’s like having an author with just a few titles out under their name. And with non-fiction there’s only so much you can write about a topic.

I think part of the reason I’m starting to see some traction with this author name (M.L. Humphrey) is because I finally have a decent number of titles out under this name and that they can potentially flow to one another.

I also, especially with non-fiction, tend to write what I feel like writing. I’ve lucked into a few where people actually wanted a book that covered that topic, but I have others that have made me $50 and that’s probably all they’ll ever make me.

Putting out all those titles has been good for me in terms of learning the mechanics of how you do things, which is why I felt comfortable writing the how-to books on ACX and CreateSpace. Put out twenty titles in audio and you learn a few things. Publish over forty paperbacks through CreateSpace and you see a wide range of what can go wrong and how it works.

But having a lot of titles out in the way I do is not the profit-maximizing approach.

If you want that, you focus on one name, in an area where people are going to come looking for your books, stay consistent in what you deliver, deliver on a steady schedule, and promote regularly.

If you can do that, you’ll probably do very well.

I…can’t. Or won’t. I’m not sure which.

Every year I sit myself down and say, “If you want to make good money at this, you need to crank out six books this year under one name in a hot market. Like dragons. Write dragons. Ready, set, go.”

And then I go write something completely different instead.

Despite my inability to do what I know will make me money, it’s slowly adding up. March of last year I grossed $440. Right now for March I’m at $3,500 and my profit for the month is over four times what I grossed last year.

I am incredibly proud of the progress I have made. At the same time I ask myself daily why I’m not making more money doing this. You know, what’s wrong with me that I’m not a six-figure author yet. (See above for the answer. And maybe have a reality check about how common that really is.)

And it’s hard to have knowledge to share that you know will help others but to not be some bright blazing example of success. But it is what it is. And I figure that my true target audience is those who are where I was two years ago. My third full year of self-publishing I grossed $2700. In this my fifth full year of self-publishing I’ve grossed more than that in this one month.

So when that question comes up, that’s what I focus on. Where I started, how far I’ve come, and the fact that my progress may be slow but it’s steady and improving.